Updated: Feb 5, 2020
The Foreigner stars Jackie Chan as Quan, a man who has nothing left in his life but his daughter. When said daughter is killed in a terrorist bombing, Quan becomes obsessed with tracking down those responsible. This puts him up against Pierce Brosnan’s Liam Hennessy, an Irish governmental official who used to be a member of the IRA. A group calling themselves “the authentic IRA” has taken responsibility for the bombing and Quan is convinced Hennessy knows who they are.
The trailers present this as a revenge thriller with Quan hunting Hennessy for information. In the finished film, that is only partially true. Quan is willing to go to extreme lengths to get vengeance, including terrorizing Hennessy. However, most of the film deals with Hennessy’s own attempts to find the bombers. Jackie Chan, the star of the film according to all the promotional materials, is off-screen for very long periods of time. He is the shadow that hangs over the other characters. That would be okay, but the film is really telling his story. The setup is about him, the climax is about him and all the emotional beats during the film are his. If that character is missing, all we are left with is a predictable conspiracy plot and Pierce Brosnan yelling at people. The film forces Brosnan’s glorified supporting character to center stage and it is quite an awkward fit.
The Foreigner (106 minutes minus the end credits) has been competently directed by Martin Campbell (who also directed two Bond films including Brosnan’s Goldeneye). He is a veteran of action films and knows how to pace a movie like this so the action has an impact without becoming overwhelming. The screenplay was written by David Marconi based on the 1992 Stephen Leather novel The Chinaman. The novel is not familiar to me, but the film certainly is.
After Quan begins his quest and is pushed off to the side, the film becomes an incredibly predictable thriller based in the world of IRA politics. It was so predictable that I was able to figure out how several characters would factor into the story as soon as they were introduced on screen. The film’s pace would theoretically allow for it to be more about story and character than action. But there is not a lot of story and the characters are not very compelling.
Jackie Chan’s films are best known for their fight scenes. They are usually structured around his ability to use his athleticism to outsmart much larger foes. Here, Chan’s Quan (much like Chan himself) is in his sixties, so his athleticism is somewhat limited. Therefore, there aren’t any wacky fights with Chan using his surroundings to defend himself. The fight scenes are close-up and physical; less Jackie Chan and more reminiscent of a movie like First Blood. That seems to be the style nowadays, but The Foreigner does not execute it in a particularly memorable way. The action is fine, but if that is what you want to see, there are much better examples of it elsewhere.
That leaves us with the performances. This seems like an attempt for Jackie Chan to reinvent himself as more of a dramatic actor. He’s fine even though most of Campbell’s direction seems to be “talk quietly and look sad.” Brosnan is also fine. Unfortunately, his character is not very detailed. His actions seem preordained by the screenplay as opposed to coming from some kind of character motivation. The entire supporting cast is the same way. And since there are so many scenes of them spouting exposition at each other, it drags the film down.
It probably sounds like I hated The Foreigner, but I really didn’t. It is predictable and oddly structured, but it is also professionally made and features a different kind of performance from Jackie Chan. It is probably not worth a trip to the theater but, if you stumble across it on cable in six months, it may be a decent way to spend a lazy Saturday night.
2¾ out of 5
Jackie Chan as Quan Ngoc Minh
Pierce Brosnan as Liam Hennessy
Rory Fleck Byrne as Sean Morrison
Orla Brady as Mary Hennessy
Charlie Murphy as Maggie
Ray Fearon as Commander Richard Bromley
Rufus Jones as Ian Wood
Directed by Martin Campbell
Screenplay by David Marconi